Coast Guardsman Acquitted in Dutch Harbor Murder Case

Munro off Unalaska, 2013 (USCG file image)

Published Sep 18, 2020 8:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

The trial of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter crewmember who was accused of murdering a shipmate in Dutch Harbor has concluded. Following a plea agreement concluded last week, a military judge found Seaman Ethan Tucker not guilty of the two most serious charges against him, involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. 

On January 26, 2019, 19-year-old Seaman Ethan Kelch disembarked the cutter Douglas Munro for a brief period of shore leave in Dutch Harbor. He failed to return to the ship. A search was launched, and his body was discovered on the west side of Unalaska's Amaknak Island the next day. Kelch was unresponsive and was pronounced dead at a local clinic. He showed signs of head injuries, but a state coroner concluded that they were non-fatal and that Kelch had drowned.

Prosecutors contended that Seaman Ethan Tucker, one of Kelch's shipmates, had struck Kelch in the head, strangled him and then placed him in the water. When Kelch was reported missing, Tucker allegedly attempted to mislead the search and rescue effort, prosecutors asserted. 

Tucker's defense attorney argued that Kelch had passed away after Tucker tried to save him. In the defense's narrative, Tucker, Kelch and another shipmate were out on a drunken excursion on the beach that night, and Kelch attempted to go swimming in the 38-degree water. Tucker fought violently with Kelch for 30 minutes to prevent it; Tucker then passed out, according to the defense. As evidence, Tucker's attorney submitted a Snapchat video reportedly documenting the struggle. 

While the judge cleared Tucker of committing murder in connection with Kelch's death, he found him guilty on four other significant charges - false official statement, assault consummated by a battery, violation of a general order for consuming alcohol underage, and conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline by "doing or failing to do certain acts that contributed to a Coast Guard member's death."

Tucker was sentenced to a bad conduct discharge, reduction to paygrade E-1 and 14 months of confinement. As he was confined for an extended period prior to the trial, he expects to be released in five months' time, his attorney told Navy Times.